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April 23, 2012

Obama: Channeling Rosa Parks

If this beautiful photo was front-and-center last week, it’s greatest luster comes from how much it managed to short-circuit much critical attention.

First, it demonstrates how the White House, in precluding reporters and wire photographers from the “Rosa Parks bus” at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, have gained enormous mastery and control over the design, production and distribution of visual messages. Producing a steady stream of candid, behind-the-scene photos starting before, but hitting official stride with the Inauguration, the public hardly can distinguish these days between photos taken of the President by the media, and photos 100% produced by the White House and then released to the media. Given the kind of unfiltered access they’ve achieved, I look upon this gorgeous photo (yes, Mitt, be worried) as a remarkable example of muscle-flexing. In publishing the photo coincident with the unofficial start of the Obama – Romney campaign, most of the media let slip by the fact this was not a candid photo involving a moment of deep reflection as much as a posed photo calculated for popular effect. Drinking the Kool-Aid, ABC, for example, called this “a personal moment” for Obama. MSNBC called it a “tender” moment. Almost thoroughly relinquishing their platform, the media actually let the President set up the photo with his own quote. (Wrote NPR: “We think the picture speaks for itself, but here’s what the President had to say about his visit…”) And this is what the widely-republished White House quote said:

“I just sat in there for a moment and pondered the courage and tenacity that is part of our very recent history, but is also part of that long line of folks who sometimes are nameless, often times didn’t make the history books, but who constantly insisted on their dignity, their share of the American dream.”

The other striking thing about the photo is how inescapably reminiscent it is of the famous Library of Congress photo of Rosa Parks above. Mindful of seat location and body language, the photo could hardly be more derivative than a photo of the President posed in a batter’s stance in a Brooklyn Dodger jersey outside the Baseball Hall of Fame. In this case, it’s possible to say that the comparision to the Parks photo works as well as it does because of the subtlety of Obama’s black identity — BHO having become, at the same time, America’s first African-American president and as well as it’s first post-racial one. At the end of the day, though, what Obama achieves from this brilliant White House rendition (photographed at one fundraiser, then cited at the next) is not just a reference to Rosa and history books but a reference — even more recently and historically — to himself.

(photo 1: Pete Souza/White House caption: President Barack Obama sits on the famed Rosa Parks bus at the Henry Ford Museum following an event in Dearborn, Mich., April 18, 2012. photo 2: UPI/Library of Congress caption: Rosa Parks sits in the front of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1956 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregation illegal on the city’s bus system. Behind Parks is Nicholas C. Chriss, a UPI reporter covering the event.)

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